- Transformative learning networks are a specific type of loose network with geographically distributed members and member organizations. They hold particular promise for transformation when both top-down and bottom-up processes have failed to support desired systems-level change. The aim of this dissertation is to build knowledge about the social-interactional processes, roles, and practices that build transformative capacity of a network. I apply poststructural and interpretivist point of view to understand the dynamics of boundaries and boundary work in the National Alliance for Broader Impacts.
The meso-theory herein claims that two types of boundary work - building boundaries and navigating across boundaries - operate in productive tension to expand knowledge resources and increase network authority and influence in the system over time. This suggests that network leaders can dynamically manage boundaries, shifting emphasis between strength and fluidity to support multi-sited and multi-scalar change.
The primary claim of the applied research contribution is that a variety of both structures and interdependent roles and practices work in concert to support transformation across sites and scales. To support this claim, I detail common network substructures, across which critical practices occur and develop a typology of network practices in two distinct, but interdependent roles. Those in the sojourner role focus on site-based work to shift everyday norms. They demonstrate keen awareness of how their institutions enable and constrain change efforts and contribute that knowledge to the network. Those in an expert role, design networks to support meaningful member engagement opportunities across sites and at the same time build identity and coherence within the network to enable transformation at multiple scales. The expert and sojourner roles generally correspond with boundary building and boundary navigation respectively.
In addition to the focus on boundary dynamics in networks, this study also examines “Broader Impacts” as a path for connecting science and society in a time when the realms of science and other sectors of society need to come together to address increasingly complex social, educational, and environmental challenges. The final contribution describes a manifestation of one of many possible transformative pathways that emerged from and evolves within the network. The concept of helping scientists develop their “impact identity”, integrates scholarship in a scientific discipline with societal needs, personal preferences, capacities and skills, and one’s institutional context. I understand identity, or a scientists’ self-concept, as a productive driver that can improve outcomes for scientists and for society by bridging the gap between them through public engagement activities.
This body of work ties together the theory of morphogenesis from critical realism, boundary concepts from across disciplines, and the landscapes of practice conceptual framework. The aim is to expand understanding about the design and potential of learning networks, which disrupt the status quo to guide change in social-ecological and social-educational systems. The new theory and insights about structures, roles, and practices can inform network and transformation scholars across disciplines. Network leaders, designers, and evaluators can also apply this work to their practice.